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The Dayside : Blogging scholars

By: Charles Day
07 March 2014

My friend Alex Wellerstein is a historian of science who specializes in nuclear weapons and the shrouds of secrecy that imperfectly envelop them. His scholarly articles and book reviews have appeared in ISIS, Endeavour, and other august journals. His first book on nuclear secrecy is scheduled to come out next year.

Alex has also written NUKEMAP, a Google Maps JavaScript app that displays the zones of destruction wrought by a nuclear weapon of your choosing at a target of your choosing. Whereas a few tens of people have read Alex’s 30-page article, “Patenting the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Intellectual Property, and Technological Control,” 4 million people from around the world have used NUKEMAP to detonate virtual bombs.

NUKEMAP’s progeny, NUKEMAP3D, made its debut last July. The Google Earth app calculates and displays virtual mushroom clouds. Could the residents of New York City have seen a detonation over Washington, DC, of the Soviet Union’s most powerful weapon, the 50-megaton Tsar Bomba? Yes, according to NUKEMAP3D. Besides the two apps, Alex also writes a blog, Restricted Data, and sells nuclear-themed coffee mugs, t-shirts, and other items through an online store hosted by CafePress.

NUKEMAP calculates the extent of destruction wrought by detonating a Nagasaki-sized atomic bomb over the White House.

NUKEMAP calculates the extent of destruction wrought by detonating a Nagasaki-sized atomic bomb over the White House.

Alex’s efforts to share the results of his scholarship with people outside his specialized field came to mind last week when I read a paper in Science by Diane Harley. The abstract’s opening sentence poses this question:

Despite predictions that emerging technologies will transform how research is conducted, disseminated, and rewarded, why do we see so little actual shift in how scholars in the most competitive and aspirant institutions actually disseminate their research?

To answer it, Harley drew on anthropological studies that she and her collaborators have conducted of the prevailing cultural norms in 12 academic disciplines. Her conclusion: The value placed on peer-reviewed publications in prestigious journals more than offsets any “technological affordances of new media,” as she puts it.

Harley also found scant evidence that young, tech-savvy scholars were bypassing traditional journals. In the intensely competitive world of academia, young scholars are advised to concentrate on publishing in the right journals. If they don’t publish in such journals, they won’t get hired or tenured—which might account for the increased pace of publication in peer-reviewed, archival journals.

I’m not surprised by Harley’s findings. One could imagine other formats for presenting scholarly research than the paper, monograph, or book, but to be worthy of lasting attention the research itself still has to result from a deep investigation of an important topic. Describing that investigation in coherent prose remains effective, as does peer review.

But if you’ve done the research, and if you’ve acquired deep knowledge of your subject, then you’ve already done the heavy scholarly lifting. New media aren’t so much a failed competitor to traditional publishing but a potentially successful and efficient way to share all the fruits of research with your peers and with the public.

A photograph that a historian finds at the National Archives might not be worthy of inclusion in a book, but it could make for a compelling blog post. Likewise, a physicist who finds a new and better way to calibrate a piece of standard equipment wouldn’t write a paper about her discovery; but she could blog about it—to the great benefit of her peers.

This essay by Charles Day first appeared on page 104 of the November/December 2013 issue of Computing in Science & Engineering, a bimonthly magazine published jointly by the American Institute of Physics and IEEE Computer Society.

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